This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert, one of the greatest French novelists of the Nineteenth Century; together with Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola, he revolutionized the basic tenets of French literature and theatre. Born on December 21, 1821 in Rouen, he passed away on May 8th 1880 in Paris; during his relatively brief lifetime, he changed our perspective on Love, Romance and Sentimental Frustrations.
His family was part of the petite bourgeoisie catholique of the administrative capital of Normandy; his father was the chirurgien-en-chef of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital of the city and the family resided many years in a small apartment in the institution’s premises. Full of exalted romanticism in his early youth, he was a rebellious student that was even expelled temporarily form his high school; after successfully completing his baccalauréat exam in 1840, his family rewarded him with a trip to the Pyrénées and Corse. During the summer of 1836 he met Élise Schlesinger (ten years older than him) who will be the Love of His Life, in spite of being physically separated, except for brief periods.
Note. This picture of Gustave Flaubert was taken from Wikimedia Commons. Par Étienne Carjat — , Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1985091
Dispensed by the lottery from the military draft, he started, without much conviction, to study Law in Paris in 1841; he led a very bohemian life, befriending many literary luminaries like Victor Hugo. In 1844 he gives up his studies and relocates to the village of Croisset, on the banks of the River Seine, a few kilometers from Rouen, in a villa bought by his father; there he starts writing in earnest and drafts the first version of l’Éducation Sentimentale and several articles. In the beginning of 1846, both his father and his younger sister Caroline passed away, which devastated him sentimentally.
His father bequeathed him a small fortune and he could dedicate himself fully to a writing career. In that year he met the poet Louise Colet with whom he had a passionate relationship for 10 years. Accompanied by his friend Louis-Hyacinthe Bouilhet he travels to Paris to assist to the 1848 revolution; he made very important political contacts, which would prove to be crucial for his career. Between the years 1849 and 1852, he travels extensively in Orient with his friend Maxime du Camp.
Encouraged by his friends, he started creating the draft of Madame Bovary on September 19, 1851. After 56 months of a heavy commitment, he finished the novel in 1856 and it was published as an installment in the Revue de Paris; after meeting the publisher Michel Levy in 1857, the book makes its debut to much acclaim by the Parisian intelligentsia, especially due to its unwavering realism. Before this novel, all the romantic productions depicted a sugary coated version of loving relations. The heroines duly suffered for their all too perfect beaus but in the end there was a happy reunion. Flaubert paints those human relationships with bold, passionate strokes of unmitigated honesty. The book shocked the public and alarmed the authorities who threatened to put him on trial. However, his political connections spared him of that hassle, unlike his friend Charles Baudelaire who was convicted for a similar affront to the prevailing bourgeois sense of decorum.
Was the novel Madame Bovary an imaginary creation of Flaubert, as he had always firmly claimed? Many literary critics contested his assertion by exposing the tragic story of Delphine Delamare. She was the young wife of an officier de santé who committed suicide by ingesting arsenic, after being drowned by bad debts and the treachery of her two lovers; it was big news in Flaubert’s Normandy.
Note. This reproduction of Joseph-Désiré Court’s Rigolette cherchant a se distraire pendant l’absence de Germain was taken from Wikimedia Commons. Par Joseph-Désiré Court — Source inconnue, Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1552031
Joseph-Désiré Court, painter who made several portraits of the Flaubert family, supposedly painted that portrait based on the image of Delphine Delamare, the real life inspiration for Madame Bovary.
Profoundly influenced by the writings of Flaubert, and Madame Bovary in particular, we pay special homage to them in the prologue of our new book Emotional Frustration- the hushed plague.
“Women are meant to be loved, not understood.” Oscar Wilde
We have a problem with a woman. A particular one. And it is getting worse.
Ever since we started our medical practice almost forty years ago, she has showed up every day—rain or shine—to share her multiple woes with us. She sits down across our desk, looks at us straight in the eye and says the very same words: “I am emotionally frustrated.” What is her name? Bovary. Emma. Emma Bovary.
When we read Madame Bovary [i] as a student in the Alliance Française [ii] of Montevideo, we were mesmerized by the story of a beautiful and ardent wife of a country medical practitioner that could not find any solace in her grey existence. At the time we could not fathom how she could be so ungrateful to her partner.
However, the ensuing studies and practice as a medical doctor gave us the necessary insight to grasp—if still not fully agree with—the cause of her angst. Physicians watch births, deaths, and almost anything in between them. Including the big and small, yet none the less painful, incidents of women’s humiliations.
We had left our copy of the novel in a box full of books in Montevideo but somehow, Emma sprung out of it to pursue us all the way to Miami to disturb us. Ever since her 1856 debut as a series in La Revue de Paris [iii], this mischievously meek petite bourgeoise has been deftly manipulating ingénue men like us.[iv]
Even in a hyper-connected age, she still cannot get her message through. The plethora of mixed messages in the social media platforms has increased her confusion as her connections seem to be more tone-deaf than ever to her plight. As the tragic trifecta of memory, love and the passage of time relentlessly gnaws at her soul, she has been stubbornly nagging us to record her thoughts verbatim [v]. The Spanish language differentiates between the noble role of escritor—an artist inspired by a mission—and the mundane one of escribiente—an obscure agent that copies other people’s writings or takes dictation.[vi] Haggling with the most miserly of muses and fighting the meanest of demons, we turned into Emma’s escribiente.
[i] Gustave Flaubert, “Madame Bovary”, Frères Michel Levy, Paris, 1857.
[ii] Name of the private institute based in Paris, France, that teaches the French language in many branches worldwide.
[iii] After five years of writing more than 4500 pages, Gustave Flaubert, aged 35 years, published the 500 pages of “Madame Bovary” in the magazine directed by Maxime Du Camp, his companion in the trip to the Far East. There were six parts appearing on the first and fifteenth day of the months of October, November, and December 1856. He wrote to a friend that; ‘you will know that I am presently being printed, I lose my virginity of non-published man in eight days as of Thursday, October 1st…I will for three consecutive months fill most of the pages of La Revue de Paris.” Our translation.
Information was obtained from Yvan Leclerc, “Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, pré-originale dans la Revue de Paris «, Recueil des Commémorations Nationales 2006.
[iv] In the January 8, 2019, program “L’heure Bleu” of Radio France Inter, Laura Adler, the presenter, interviewed Vanessa Springora, author of the bestseller “Le Consentement”. The subject of Madame Bovary and her frustrations came up for discussion. I believe it was Vanessa that suggested that Emma Bovary “devrait avoir pris la plume pour écrire” (she should have picked up the feather to write) Well, false modesty apart, let us inform these ladies that it is never too late for Emma to at least voice her ideas, especially when she can recruit a submissive agent to take dictation like yours truly. Playing with the meaning of our last name, we dare to say: “je suis peut être Laplume qui manquait dans la vie de Madame Bovary” ( I am perhaps the Laplume that was missing in Madame Bovary’s life)
[v] Term in the Latin language that means: “in exactly the same words.”
[vi] Diccionario de la Lengua Española, Tomo 1, Real Academia Española, 2001, Espasa Calpe.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.